Parent power battles, by Conor Ryan

23 Feb 10
CONOR RYAN | Today's announcement by Gordon Brown that the Government is accrediting the best academy providers, plus some excellent secondary schools, as schools providers, with parents having the power to demand change, is a significant step

Today's announcement by Gordon Brown that the Government is accrediting the best academy providers, plus some excellent secondary schools, as schools providers, with parents having the power to demand change, is a significant step forward in Labour's schools policy. Until now, the party had appeared far too defensive in the face of Michael Gove's Swedish free schools policies, allowing the Tories to adopt Labour's academies as their own. The Brown speech opens up a new front in the schools battle that I described recently in Public Finance.

The new policy will allow parents to demand a new school provider - choosing from those like the Harris Federation that are showing such success in academies, or schools like Outwood Grange - if their own school is failing. Although the early list is limited, it is likely to expand rapidly and will provide the Tories with a readymade quality mark for their free schools providers. Where there is significant demand, the local authority will be obliged to ballot parents and can't ignore parents' wishes. The policy will apply as much to primary as secondary schools, and should develop a range of school brands. Schools already have the right to opt for foundation or trust status, something a new provider is sure to demand.

The policy is certainly a less costly route to diversity in these straitened times (something that may catch George Osborne's eye too). But there are some potential pitfalls. The first is that it doesn't extend the academies programme and freedoms as much as many providers may wish - Ed Balls has a blind spot about the importance of independence to schools. The government has also not reversed its opposition to primary academies: a chain of primary schools could be the ideal way to develop this approach. There are also important issues around how chains are inspected and held accountable, as Robert Hill argues in a new think piece for the National College for the Leadership of Schools and Children's Services.

Nevertheless, by moving onto a debate about the right structures needed to raise standards, Gordon Brown has finally put his stamp on an education policy that many believe has been allowed to drift for too long with the lack of focus that came from trying to mesh schools and family policy in a single department, the Department for Children, Schools and Families. By combining new powers for parents, structural reform and a strong drive for minimum standards through the National Challenge, Labour is trying to offer a serious alternative to Tory policies at a time when their Swedish school plans are facing increasing questions about affordability and impact.

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